'Stranger by the Lake' and 'Child's Pose' Explore the Dark Side of Intimacy

The things we do for love. Along with the more pleasant devotions, we agonize, we accept abuse, we kill ourselves, and sometimes worse. Two adroit new films from Europe offer clear-eyed takes on the extraordinary lengths to which some people will go to find and preserve that connection, whether it’s a mother/son bond or merely an addictive fling with a handsome stranger.

Of course, “merely” somewhat sells short the relationship at the heart of French writer/director Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake (Strand DVD and Blu-ray; Netflix, Amazon, and iTunes streaming). Skinny young Franck (Pierre Deldonchamps) comes to a lakeside cruising spot looking to meet other men, and he does—from random trysts in the surrounding woods to older, dumpy, purportedly straight Henri (Patrick d’Assumcao), who insists he comes to the beach for the peace and quiet, not for any action. But then Franck gets a load of a tall, dark, mustachioed stud (Christophe Paou), just his type and not unwelcoming of Franck’s attention, and maybe more. Franck is so smitten that it isn’t a deal-breaker when, one evening, he watches the stranger drown his current boy toy.

The isolated, cloistered nature of the cruise spot and the sub rosa nature of the relationships hatched there prove a perfect hothouse for Guiraudie’s art-house noir. Indeed, the camera never leaves the beach, the woods, and the gravel parking area—characters mention their lives away from the spot, but that’s part of a different world. That insularity means that when a police detective (Jerome Chappatte) starts asking questions, no one is completely honest with him. It’s easy to understand why the stranger, Michel, isn’t forthcoming. Franck has less of an excuse, even as he falls hard for Michel.

Spoiler alert: Yes, this is another film in which a gay man turns out to be murderous psychopath. Yet Guiraudie’s take on Franck’s quandary is entirely empathetic, if unsentimental. After all, the reason Franck comes to the beach nearly every day and the reason that he and odd-duck Henri strike up a genuine friendship are the same: loneliness, the need for human interaction and contact. That hunger, plain beneath Stranger by the Lake’s placid surface, is as primal as any there is. Part of the fascination Guiraudie gins up here involves watching Franck weigh his repulsion—and his fear that he could be the next to take a last swim with Michel—against his lust, his love, and his loneliness, the kind of overwhelming hormonal/emotional cocktail that sweeps away cool-headed reason. And while the final reel may get a bit overheated, the final scene manages to be both unnerving and utterly, distressingly, nakedly human.

(Speaking of nakedness, and things people sometimes do while thus, Stranger by the Lake rivals even Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac in nudity and sexually explicit exploits. I mention this not to shelter squeamish sensibilities so much as to suggest that you do your best to get over any you have. You read this far, didn’t you? It’s a really good film, and it’s 2014, so let’s act like it.)

The love between a mother and a son may seem a more wholesome subject, but not as presented in Romanian writer/director Calin Peter Netzer’s Child’s Pose (Zeitgeist DVD; Netflix, Amazon, and iTunes streaming). Cornelia (Luminita Gheorghiu) is an affluent lady of a certain age, helmeted with a blond bob and armored in various fur-trimmed jackets and designer bags. She’s clearly a formidable force, and when word comes that her son Barbu (Bogdan Dumitrache) has struck and killed a teenage boy on the highway, she mobilizes, ready to protect her baby and steamroll anyone who gets in her way. But Barbu isn’t a rash kid, he’s a soft middle-aging man with thinning hair and meager spine. And it appears he was driving somewhat recklessly when he knocked the teen, a boy from a poor family, several car lengths down the road. Not that any of this will stop Cornelia.

Strip out the subtitles, dub the dialogue, and Cornelia, Barbu, and the whole scenario could more or less scan for Anysuburb, USA; the human motivations are similarly recognizable. Cornelia’s machinations aren’t just about preventing her son from going to prison, they’re about reasserting her control over his life, even though her prior control seems to have contributed to his overgrown adolescence and his inability to govern himself or settle with his girlfriend (Ilinca Goia). And while Cornelia’s manipulations and maneuverings and salvo of bribes and favors may keep Barbu from behind bars, bigger losses hover just outside her ken.

Child’s Pose is as unvarnished as Stranger by the Lake, with Netzer’s handheld-camera approach and the cast’s finely observed performances making these domestic disturbances gripping to watch. (Gheorghiu is especially good when negotiating terms with a cagey witness played by Vlad Invanov.) That said, there is something about the observational ambiguity that Netzer resorts to in the final reel that fails to deliver a satisfactory revelation or catharsis, or even a point. Fascinating, but ultimately flawed.